Modernism Unit: Alain Badiou on Krapp’s Last Tape and “the space that lies between French and English”

To accompany the lecture on Beckett in the modernism unit, here is a lecture by Alain Badiou on Krapp’s Last Tape, in which he also reflects on “the space that lies between French and English”, a space he describes as “a perpetual torment”. He provides a commentary not only upon the play, but also on the negotiation of working in and between multiple languages, which is of course also an important consideration for us in this international unit.

Working across languages is a irreducibly ethical undertaking of hospitality and welcome that implicates the reader both as host and guest. To read across languages is to welcome the foreigner, to welcome difference, to permit linguistic and cultural immigration, and it lays upon the shoulders of the reader the ethico-political responsibility that inevitably comes with the double possibility of welcome and rejection. To read across languages is also to set out on a voyage, to emigrate, to make oneself vulnerable, to be exposed as (and to) the foreigner, to risk incomprehension, and to become beholden to the hospitality of another way of thinking and writing. It is an existential voyage that brings about a change in the voyager, creating a “before” and “after” that is only ever the effect of a genuine encounter. There is something both beautiful and visceral about this privilege and responsibility of reading what has come to be called “world literature”: it is not to be taken lightly.

Women and Surrealism, by Chris Worth

This is a guest post by Dr. Chris Worth.

One of the topics raised in the question time after Benjamin Andréo’s first lecture on Dada and Surrealism was a really good one about whether, despite their avant-garde aspirations, many of the key figures in the movements continued to take a very male-oriented to art and seem to have made little attempt to respond to pressures from women to play a larger role:

Whilst surrealist thought radically challenged hierarchies, it often remained blind to its own gender politics, locked in a heterosexual, sometimes homophobic, patriarchal stance positioning and constructing women (and never men) as artists’ muses, femme-enfants, virgins, dolls and erotic objects. As Gwen Raaberg points out ‘no women [. . .] had been listed as official members of the surrealist movement, nor had they signed the manifestoes’. (Patricia Allmer, Angels and Anarchy, 13)

Photographs of ‘the Surrealists’ usually represent a collection of men with one or two often relegated to the edges of the group (although the photograph from the first Surrealist exhibition in London in 1936 is an interesting exception:

First International Surrealist Exhibition

Over the last few decades this issue has been a significant research issue in the fields of art history, literature, etc. There have been some really interesting studies published – here are a couple that are worth looking at, particularly valuable for demonstrating how the ideas of the movement led to some spectacularly interesting art work by women:

Allmer, Patricia (ed.). Angels of Anarchy: Women Artists and Surrealism. Manchester and Munich: Manchester Art Gallery/Prestel, 2009.  Caulfield 709.04063 A439A 2009

Catalogue of an exhibition at the Manchester Art Gallery, 29 Sept. 2009 – 10 Jan. 2010. Contains a number of short essays, including ones by Mary Ann Caws, Katherine Conley and Alyce Mahon, but more importantly illustrations of amazing work by Eileen Agar, Claude Cahun and Dora Maar (from the pre-WWII period), as well as the continuing influence of surrealist thought and methods in the work of more recent female artists like Francesca Woodman.  I think Cahun is particularly interesting – photographer and performer – see below for her prose self-representation.

Cahun, Claude. Disavowals: or, Cancelled Confessions. Trs. Susan de Muth. London: Tate Publishing, 2007. [1930, as Aveux non Anvenus]. Caulfield Call no:848.91209 CAH  (NB, the American ed. publ. by MIT Press)

Caws, Mary Ann, Rudolf Kuenzil and Gwen Raaberg (eds). Surrealism and Women. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1991. Clayton – Matheson 709.04066 C383S (also at Caulfield)

Chadwick, Whitney. Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement. London: Thames & Hudson, 1998. Clayton – Matheson 709.04066 C432W  (also at Caulfield)

Chadwick, Whitney and Dawn Ades. Mirror Images: Women, Surrealism, and Self-representation. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1998. Clayton – Matheson 704.042 C432M (also at Caulfield).

Catalogue of an exhibition at the MIT List Visual Arts Center, the Miami Art Museum and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Conley, Katherine. Automatic Women: The Representation of Women in Surrealism. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1996. Caulfield 709.04063 C752A 1996

Mahon, Alyce. Surrealism and the Politics of Eros, 1938-1968. London: Thames & Hudson, 2005. Clayton – Matheson 709.44 M216S 2005 (also at Caulfield)

Van Raay, Stefan, Joanna Morehead, and Teresa Arcq. Surreal Friends: Leonora Carrington, Remedios Varo and Kati Horna. Franham, Surrey: Lund Humphries in association with Pallant House Gallery, 2010.  Not in the Monash libraries, alas, but I am prepared to lend the book to anyone who is madly interested in the topic (great illustrations).

Of course the much bigger question is the one that needs to be addressed to modernism as a whole: do the revolutionary artistic sentiments of modernism acknowledge and address the condition of women in art and life? (Hard for Australians to remember, but women did not get the vote in France until 1944, for example – 1918 in Britain, for women who owned property and were over 30 . . .) I know that this will come up with Virginia Woolf, if not before, but I would also like to point to the interesting diagram about relationships between modernists, taken from Bonnie Kime Scott’s The Gender of Modernism: A Critical Anthology (Indiana University Press, 1990), that is slide 4 in Melinda’s lecture from 2014:

A Tangled Mesh of Modernists

I have left it on the Moodle site in the Dubliners section – obviously I won’t give the same lecture as Melinda did, but much of the material is fascinating and I will refer to most of it.

Chris Worth

Lu Xun, anthropophagism and 1950s sci-fi

One of the most striking motifs of ‘A Madman’s Diary’ is the anthropophagism that is first hinted at and then becomes a central obsession of the diarist. One of the first questions this raises is: “For what is eating people a metaphor in this text?”, assuming of course that it is to be read metaphorically. Given that the text Metropolis machineseems to be framed as a critique of what we might call the ‘old order’ (where every ambitious young man’s dream is to take up an “official post”), we may want to argue that anthropophagism is figuring the human-devouring old way of doing things, co-opting and consuming human lives to keep the wheels turning. The image of the human-devouring machine from Metropolis (right) forms an interesting counterpoint.

The history of literary anthropophagism is long, complex, and beyond my competence to sketch out in any detail. Whereas cannibalism is frequently portrayed as taboo and a categorical transgression the evil or repugnance of which does not need to be argued, there are also notable exceptions. Michel de Montaigne’s Of Cannibals presents a culturally relativistic picture of anthropophagism, observing that

I find (as far as I have been informed) there is nothing in that nation[1] that is either barbarous or savage, unless men call that barbarism which is not common to them. As indeed we have no other aim of truth and reason than the example and idea of the opinions and customs of the country we live in.

Anthropophagism also raises the theme of corporeality and, for Lu Xun, the notion that one takes on the characteristics of that which one consumes: ‘But just because I am brave they are the more eager to eat me, in order to acquire some of my courage’.

In ‘A Madman’s Diary’, anthropophagism is allied with secrecy: the diarist does not know simply by looking at someone whether they are a flesh-eater or not. This exchange from the 8th entry captures well the diarist’s suspicion and attempt to ‘out’ the cannibals:


Suddenly someone came in. He was only about twenty years old and I did not see his features very clearly. His face was wreathed in smiles, but when he nodded to me his smile did not seem genuine. I asked him “Is it right to eat human beings?”

Still smiling, he replied, “When there is no famine how can one eat human beings?”

I realized at once, he was one of them; but still I summoned up courage to repeat my question:

“Is it right?”

“What makes you ask such a thing? You really are . . fond of a joke. . . . It is very fine today.”

“It is fine, and the moon is very bright. But I want to ask you: Is it right?”

He looked disconcerted, and muttered: “No….”

“No? Then why do they still do it?”

“What are you talking about?”

“What am I talking about? They are eating men now in Wolf Cub Village, and you can see it written all over the books, in fresh red ink.”

His expression changed, and he grew ghastly pale. “It may be so,” he said, staring at me. “It has always been like that. . . .”

“Is it right because it has always been like that?”

“I refuse to discuss these things with you. Anyway, you shouldn’t talk about it. Whoever talks about it is in the wrong!”

These themes strongly resonate with a number of 1950s sci-fi films, notably Invaders from Mars (1953) and Invasion of the Bodysnatchers (1956) (trailers below).

Invasion of the BodysnatchersThe theme of the consumption/control of the body (either literally or metaphorically) by that which is other than the human has an abiding force in the imagination of both the east and the west, as Lu Xun, Metropolis and 1950s sci-fi jointly attest.

Finally for this post, anthropophagism raises the question of the human/animal distinction, also thematised in Kafka’s ‘A Report to an Academy’, studied in this course.

There is a great research essay (or two) to be written on anthropophagism in modernist literature, and also on the different ways of thinking the human/animal distinction in the period.

[1] Montaigne is referring, it appears, to Brazil.

Lu Xun, Modernism and Madness

Madman's diaryLu Xun’s ‘A Madman’s Diary’, one of the set texts for week on Chinese modernism in the modernism unit, raises the interesting question of the relation of madness to modernism per se. It is already becoming clear in the course that the discourse around the limits of rationality is central to many different trends within modernism, often drawing (more or less loosely) on Freud’s topographic or structural theories of the psyche. Madness is frequently figured as a liberation from the customary constraints of productive, rational, conventional thought and, along with automatism and dreams, it can speak a truth deeper than the surface appearance of things. There are here distant resonances, perhaps, with the Shakespearean fool…

This does not mean to say, of course, that madness is never negatively connoted in modernist literature, or never presented as (also) destructive or dangerous. However, as we saw in the session on Dada and Surrealism, destruction and danger themselves are not always negatively connoted either.

It would make a fascinating research project to consider one or more of the many presentations of madness in modernist literature, with Lu Xun as a promising starting point. Louis Sass’s Madness and Modernism: Insanity in the Light of Modern Art, Literature and Thought  (New York: Basic Books 1993) would also be an important starting point for research in this area (the university has a couple of copies).

The blurb for Sass’s book reads as follows:

A stunning revelation of the eerie likeness between schizophrenic insanity and the sensibility of modern art, literature, and thought, Madness and Modernism presents a vivid and highly original portrait of the world of the madman, along with a provocative commentary on modernist and postmodernist culture. Sass, a clinical psychologist, explores the bizarre experiences of schizophrenia (and related conditions) through a comparison with the works of various artists and writers, including Franz Kafka, Paul Valery, Samuel Beckett, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Giorgio de Chirico, and Marcel Duchamp, and by considering the ideas of philosophers such as Friedrich Nietzsche, William James, Martin Heidegger, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Derrida. The similarities between madness and modernism are striking: defiance of authority and convention; an extreme, often dizzying relativism, which can culminate in paralysis; nihilism and all-embracing irony; a tantalizing, uncanny, but always frustrating sense of revelation; obliteration of standard forms of time and narrative; pervasive dehumanization; and disappearance of external reality in favor of the omnipotent ego or, alternatively, dissolution of all sense of selfhood. This rigorously argued, gracefully written book offers a startlingly new vision of schizophrenia, an illness long recognized as the greatest challenge to psychiatric or psychological understanding. Conventionally seen as a loss of rationality, perhaps involving a return to some infantile or bestial condition, schizophrenia, according to Sass, is better understood as, in a sense, a disease of hyperrationality, with detachment from action, emotions, and the body and entrapment in forms of acute self-consciousness and heightened awareness. Sass refuses to romanticize the schizophrenic as a heroic rebel, mystic, or passionate Wildman, arguing instead that this condition echoes many of the most alienating aspects of modern life. In an epilogue and appendix, he considers whether modern culture might actively contribute to the genesis or shaping of schizophrenic forms of pathology, and he discusses the possible role of abnormalities of the brain.

You might also be interested in the reviews in the New York Times and London Review of Books.

Rule of thumb: use the Cambridge Companion as a jumping off point for research

If you are exploring a research topic for the modernism unit and don’t know where to start in your secondary reading, it is a good general rule of thumb to begin by seeing if there is a relevant essay in one of the Cambridge Companions. These essays provide excellent introductions to areas of a particular author’s work or to particular movements, and also contain useful bibliographical information. The university library has a subscription to the companions, so you can search and view the entire range electronically. Just go to the Cambridge Companions under the “databases” link from the library landing page.

Kafka’s ‘A Report to an Academy’ and the authoritative discourse of the liminally human

Perhaps it is because I have just finished the delightfully written To the Lighthouse, but reading Kafka’s ‘A report to an academy‘ this week for the up-coming modernism unit I am struck by the ambiguous narratorial position of the ‘former ape’ giving the report. Kafka’s brilliant conceit positions the speaker on the limits of humanity, which the story constructs as a position of authority and dignity, a liminal centrality. This is not a talking ape, neither is it a human talking about an ape. It is a human, who was formerly an ape, reflecting on “his” previous experience. The former ape clearly senses a continuity of selfhood between his former and current state (working from the English translation, we assume he is a “he” because he wears trousers), between “my existence as an ape” and his current state, and indeed he talks of “my previous life as an ape”.

This raises fascinating questions about the relation between language, humanity and animality, with the idea of man as the ‘speaking animal’ going all the way back to Aristotle’s zoon logon echon and the bestowal of language on humanity in the complex mise-en-scène of the spoken word in Genesis 1 and Adam co-naming the animals with Elohim, all the way through the animal rationale and down to contemporary debates. Is syntactic language what “makes us” human? It also raises questions about the translatability of experience across species, and provides a very fruitful site of reflection for colleagues and students working in areas like critical animal studies.

What interests me in this post is the way that the speaker is positioned neither fully inside nor fully outside the normal limits of human discourse. This is by no means an unusual position in modernist literature (or the literature of other periods, for that matter). The first comparison that comes to mind is Lucky’s extraordinary monologue in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot:

Lucky is treated and named as an animal (remember Pozzo’s “Think, pig!”, in French the alliterative “Pense, porc!”).

Those who speak from the limits of the human frequently speak the truth that others cannot, or dare not, utter, somewhat in the manner of the Shakespearean fool. It would make a fascinating student research project to explore the liminarity of discourse across modernist literature, perhaps with Kafka’s ‘A report to an academy’ as a main reference.

See the Independent article ‘Kafka’s Monkey: Finding the Inner Ape‘,which discusses an adaptation of the story being staged at the Young Vic (London) in 2014:

See also Kari Weil, ‘A Report on the Animal Turn’, differences 21:2 (2010) 1-23. Weil discusses ‘A report for an academy’ throughout the article, but here is the paragraph in which it is introduced:

But how do we bring animal difference into theory? Can ani-
mals speak? And if so, can they be read or heard? Such questions have
deliberate echoes of the title of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s seminal essay
in postcolonial theory, “Can the Subaltern Speak?,” where she warns that
the critical establishment’s attempt to give voice to dispossessed peoples
will only result in their speaking the language of Western intellectuals
or being further dependent upon Western intellectuals to speak for them.
Her essay may serve as a warning to some who, for example, would try
to teach apes to sign in order to have them tell humans what they want.
Long before the existence of the Great Ape Project, the problematic was
exposed in Franz Kafka’s 1919 story “A Report to an Academy.” Red Peter,
the story’s narrator and protagonist, is presented as a representative of a
minority or subaltern group: he is an ape. But the appropriateness of any
of these designations is immediately brought into question as we learn that
he is an ape turned human who has been singled out by the “academy” to
give a report about his former life. Such a report, he admits, he is unable
to give. His memory of his life as an ape has been erased as a result of his
efforts to adopt the manners and language of his human captors. Instead,
he can only describe the process and progress of his assimilation from
the moment of his capture to his current success as an artistic performer
who smokes, drinks red wine, and converses like an “average European.”

Have a look also at this documentary about Koko the ‘talking’ gorilla:

Finally, here is Judith Butler on Kafka’s Parables and Paradoxes:



The excess of meaning over language in Woolf’s To the Lighthouse

The uneasy relation of language to meaning that is characteristic of much modernism punctuates Woolf’s To the Lighthouse.

Taking  walk with “the atheist” Charles Tansley, Mrs. Ramsay, tired of being talked at, begins to let her mind wander in a way that detaches Tansley’s words from their intended meaning, first with the words taking on a materiality that dislocates them from the smooth flow of intended meaning, before finally detaching themselves altogether from Tansley’s expression:

He could never “return hospitality” (those were his parched stiff words) at college. He had to make things last twice the time other people did; he smoked the cheapest tobacco; shag; the same the old men did in the quays. He worked hard–seven hours a day; his subject was now the influence of something upon somebody–they were walking on and Mrs. Ramsay did not quite catch the meaning, only the words, here and there … dissertation … fellowship … readership … lectureship.

In the following passage describing Mrs. Ramsay reading a story, the word ‘flounder’ detaches itself from its original context through incessant repetition, taking on an alienating materiality for the reader as well as for Cam:

 She read on: “Ah, wife,” said the man, “why should we be King? I do not want to be King.” “Well,” said the wife, “if you won’t be King, I will; go to the Flounder, for I will be King.”

“Come in or go out, Cam,” she said, knowing that Cam was attracted only by the word “Flounder” and that in a moment she would fidget and fight with James as usual. Cam shot off. Mrs. Ramsay went on reading, relieved, for she and James shared the same tastes and were comfortable.

“And when he came to the sea, it was quite dark grey, and the water heaved up from below, and smelt putrid. Then he went and stood by it and said,

‘Flounder, flounder, in the sea,

Come, I pray thee, here to me;

For my wife, good Ilsabil,

Wills not as I’d have her will.’

‘Well, what does she want then?’ said the Flounder.”

On a number of occasions, words appear to the book’s characters as inadequate (but necessary) vehicles of a complex emotional reality that exceeds them. In one passage, Lily Briscoe struggles to apprehend linguistically the flow of impressions that assails her:

How then did it work out, all this? How did one judge people, think of them? How did one add up this and that and conclude that it was liking one felt or disliking? And to those words, what meaning attached, after all? Standing now, apparently transfixed, by the pear tree, impressions poured in upon her of those two men, and to follow her thought was like following a voice which speaks too quickly to be taken down by one’s pencil, and the voice was her own voice saying without prompting undeniable, everlasting, contradictory things, so that even the fissures and humps on the bark of the pear tree were irrevocably fixed there for eternity.

To say that one “likes” a thing is a crude linguistic calculation that flattens out nuances of feeling lost in the brutality of the blunt linguistic instrument. But all language is ready made in this way: a heap of off-the-peg words trying to do justice to made-to-measure emotions. It is what the philosopher Jacques Derrida called the iterability of language as opposed to the singularity of people and events: no two lovers, perhaps, have loved in exactly the same way, and yet all reach for the same iterable formula “I love you” to describe their commitment and feelings.

We see the inadequacy of langauge once more in Mrs. Ramsay’s assessment of William Bankes:

But then he cared, well, Mrs. Ramsay sometimes thought that he cared, since his wife’s death, perhaps for her. He was not “in love” of course; it was one of those unclassified affections of which there are so many.

I love the term “unclassified affection”. How many such affections–not quite love, something approaching anger and pity combined, melancholy with a little scorn–must flash through our consciousness each day.

In the third section of the novel, Lily Briscoe has another brush with the inadequacy of language:

What does it mean then, what can it all mean? Lily Briscoe asked herself, wondering whether, since she had been left alone, it behoved her to go to the kitchen to fetch another cup of coffee or wait here. What does it mean?–a catchword that was, caught up from some book, fitting her thought loosely, for she could not, this first morning with the Ramsays, contract her feelings, could only make a phrase resound to cover the blankness of her mind until these vapours had shrunk. For really, what did she feel, come back after all these years and Mrs. Ramsay dead? Nothing, nothing–nothing that she could express at all.

Perhaps the most poignant instance of this failure of language in the novel is the chatter about Prue Ramsay’s marraige and death:

Prue Ramsay, leaning on her father’s arm, was given in marriage. What, people said, could have been more fitting? And, they added, how beautiful she looked!


Prue Ramsay died that summer in some illness connected with childbirth, which was indeed a tragedy, people said, everything, they said, had promised so well.

These two observations could be read as simply evoking local gossip, but I think that something else is happening in these brief, trite remarks. The predictable and largely uninformative platitudes that circulate about Prue’s marriage and death signal the inadequacy of language to capture and present such events. Whatever one says, in the face of death, risks sounding similarly platitudinous. Language cannot capture the truth of death, or of the most intimate family relations. It must resign itself to watching at a distance, dumb and mute as it gestures towards transcendent realities in its regular reductive chronicling of ‘births, marriages and deaths’. It is what Martin Heidegger in Being and Time calls ‘idle talk’: a phatic chatter that speaks much but says, ultimately, nothing.

We learn of Mrs Ramsay’s death in a subordinate clause

Given the length at which To the Lighthouse dwells on the everyday thoughts of its characters, it comes as a brutal shock to read in the grim second section that:

Mr. Ramsay, stumbling along a passage one dark morning, stretched his arms out, but Mrs. Ramsay having died rather suddenly the night before, his arms, though stretched out, remained empty.

Mrs. Ramsay’s death, note, is not even dignified with a main clause. This death, recounted en passant as a way of explaining why Mr. Ramsay’s arms were not filled in their usual way, is all the more arresting for the brevity with which it is dealt. But how could it be any other way in a novel the business of which is to inhabit and explore the thoughts of (living) characters?